Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Binary is a Metric Too

Software developers are, in their heart of hearts, dataphiles - people who are absolutely in love with data. When was the last time you had a passionate discussion about frame rates, hardware benchmarks, gadget specs, sports statistics, dungeons and dragons, the merits of high def...the list goes on. Face it, you love data. You love comparing things using data. You don’t feel comfortable making decisions without a comprehensive comparison of data.

Why then do most software developers treat software development differently?

Tom DeMarco recently brought his own famous quote into question (pdf), musing that not only is it possible to control what you can’t measure, but the most important stuff you need to control on a software project is impossible to measure. Once again, DeMarco is wrong (in my opinion anyway). To prove his point DeMarco pointed at Wikipedia, something extremely valuable that was built without the use of metrics or formal control. This is a romanticized view of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is one of the most controlled projects on the planet


On the surface, Wikipedia is the Wild West of online content. Not only can anyone edit any page, but content from Wikipedia is widely proliferated in the media and (sadly) school reports. Wikipedia is the single greatest success of user generated content in the history of mankind ("The Internet," as the medium, doesn’t count). What started with a dozen humble articles has evolved into the most comprehensive encyclopedia ever created and includes everything from the fundamentals of science to the definitive source on Babylon 5.

What folks seem to forget is that even in the Wild West, there were laws and there were lawmen. Though we love to think romantically about such brigands and gunslingers as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Butch Cassidy, most stories about these historic figures are greatly exaggerated. So too is the case with Wikipedia.

Let’s take a closer look at the Wikipedia entry for Billy the Kid. This article belongs to a number of internal WikiProjects, visible from the top of the article’s talk page. The WikiProject Biography is not unlike most projects in Wikipedia. There are defined processes for assessing articles and conducting peer reviews. There are rubrics defined for assessing the quality of articles within the project. People even take on specific roles and responsibilities within the project. The collection of processes and information serves as the main means of coordination for contributors and helps the group control articles within the scope of the project.

The WikiProject Biography even collects metrics on articles which it then uses to make decisions concerning the articles under the project. The metrics are derived from quantifiable data and help control the project.

As it turns out, Wikipedia is not the lawless territory of the internet it has been made out to be.


You can measure the immeasurable


Wikipedia works because people were able to figure out ways to measure things that usually can’t be measured. The fundamental principle that many people overlook is that binary is a metric too. Yes or no questions can be just as effective a measure as any complex metric. Did everyone fill out their task data today? Yes or no. Did the estimate match the actual? Yes or no. Did the test pass? Yes or no. Is the project done? Yes or no. Have we identified risks? Yes or no. Has this risk become a problem? Yes or no.

At the heart of every complicated metric is really a series of yes or no, binary questions. When considering whether the project is done, you have to define done. One way of defining done is in terms of a checklist. Is feature 1 done? Is feature 2 done? Defining done for a feature could be as simple as checking whether all the tests have passed for the feature, again a binary measure.

For more subjective assessments, you can rely on observation-based, experience-defined rubrics. Does the team get along with one another? In the simplest form, this could be a binary metric (Am I friends with everyone on the team?) but it could also be more complicated relying on gut feelings and a guiding rubric ("we never hang out together and don’t trust one another" might indicate low harmony while "we hang out often and feel comfortable sharing personal stories" could indicate high harmony). Teachers use rubrics and experience to judge subjective assignments everyday. The difference is that they slap a grade on it and send it home as a report card.

While DeMarco is correct that many of most critical things in a project are the most difficult to measure, it is possible to create measurements if you feel it is important enough to do so. How would you assess whether you have a good architecture that solves the problem at hand? Rubrics might play a part but so too might binary gates based on quality attribute scenarios or intricate observations concerning design trends over time. If you think hard enough, you'll find that it's extremely easy to find measuring points for nearly every aspect of a software project.


Whatever you do, don’t become a mindless, data-driven robot


I love data and I know you do to. While it’s tempting to inject data collection and derive metrics for every aspect of a project (because it’s fun and informative!) don’t. Collecting data and calculating metrics can be expensive. Not so expensive that you shouldn’t use it, but expensive enough so that you shouldn’t use it on everything. I like to compare using metrics to eating out at restaurants. Once or twice a week isn’t that big a deal, but it’s not something you should do every day if you’re trying to watch your budget.

DeMarco is right about one thing: control is not the end-all-be-all of software engineering. Consider carefully, what are the most risky parts of my project? What are the parts of my project that even require control? What are the parts in which I need more insight or want to improve? Strategically develop metrics for these areas and don't worry about measuring the rest. Trust me, the world won't end. If you don’t know what you’re doing, start with a simple binary measure. And above all, if something isn’t working, change it.